Self-taught musicians keep their dream afloat
Felice Brothers bring show to Brass Rail
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Early in the band’s career, The Felice Brothers were often described by music journalists as “Brooklyn-based.”
While it is true that the band first came to prominence while performing in that New York City borough, they were never really based there, according to James Felice.
The Felice Brothers are and always have been based in one place: two hours north of Manhattan in the Catskill Mountains.
From a small town on the Hudson
The members of the Felice Brothers who are actually named Felice (two aren’t) and who are actually each other’s brothers grew up in Palenville, population 1,000 or so.
The only thing Palenville and New York City have in common is proximity to the Hudson River.
Ian, James, and Simone Felice grew up in the country. Their closest neighbors were not in plain view. The country was where their music formed and the country is where their music is still made.
“We still live here and our family still lives here,” James Felice said. “We’ll live here forever hopefully.”
The band’s fortunes depended on Brooklyn hipsters falling in love with them, but it may be that the Felice Brothers are at their most creative when they have an audience comprised mainly of livestock.
James Felice admits that he never really warmed up to New York City.
“I had a hard time being there for a long time,” James said. “I still have trouble being there. I am really not a city person at all. Don’t get me wrong: There are a lot of awesome things about the city. But I will never be more than a commuter.”
Comparisons to Dylan
Music journalists tend to compare The Felice Brothers’ music to that made by two legendary acts: Bob Dylan and the Band.
James Felice said the comparisons are flattering but inaccurate ultimately.
“The only exposure that a lot of writers have had to folk music is Bob Dylan and the Band,” James said. “So it’s natural for them to make that comparison. Whatever the hell we are … we definitely have our own thing going on.”
What the James, Ian, and Simone grew up listening to were artists who predated and influenced the ones mentioned above: Pete Seeger, Woody Guthrie, Skip James, and Mississippi John Hurt among them.
James Felice calls what they were brought up on “mountain town music” — folk, country, and musicians on porches mixing everything together.
A label that gets affixed to the Felice Brothers is Americana. James isn’t too fond of that term. He said he appreciates the bands that tend to fall under that rubric, but he doesn’t feel as if the Felice Brothers have much in common with them.
Recovering from Hardships
The Felice Brothers have suffered some hardship since their debut album was released in 2006.
Simone Felice left the band in 2009 after the death of his daughter.
In 2011, Hurricane Irene destroyed the band’s studio and entropy dispatched the band’s recreational vehicle.
“We were completely broke and in debt, too,” James said. “It took a few years to come back from that.”
“We crawled up out of that pit and we’re better now,” he said, laughing.
The Felice Brothers have had to teach themselves everything they know about music and the music business, from how to play their instruments to how not to starve.
“We’re still learning,” James Felice said. “The profit margin is pretty narrow. It’s a little easier than it used to be, but it’s still a DIY operation. We’re still educating ourselves on how we have to do this so we can make a living doing this.”
The band’s goals are modest. They just want to keep the operation afloat with a surfeit of integrity and a modicum of solvency.
“Yeah, the most important thing is to continue to make music and play shows that we’re proud of,” James Felice said. “That’s foremost. We always want more people to come to shows. We want to play in front of at least 200 people per night wherever we go. It’s tough. How do you get people to come out to shows? There are so many bands touring…”